Just after 7 a.m. on Sept. 30, 1921, Carl Wanderer prayed “fervently” as he walked to the gallows. A Cook County jury convicted him of the murder of his wife, Ruth, and a “ragged” stranger. At the time, Ruth was pregnant.
“On the scaffold, as they were adjusting this white robe and the noose, [Wanderer] began to sing,” a Chicago Daily News reporter recorded on that day. “It was evident he sang to his wife. The words and tune came slowly from his lips and the people in the darkened room listened appalled to the gruesome concert.”
The convicted man continued singing until a deputy slipped a white hood over his head. “Just before the trap was sprung, a guard standing on the scaffold heard Wanderer murmur, ‘God have mercy on my soul, God have mercy on my soul.’”
Wanderer’s long walk to the gallows began over a year earlier on June 21, 1920. According to a Daily News report published the following day, Wanderer and his wife had returned home to 4732 N. Campbell Avenue after attending a picture show. There in the vestibule of their home, an unknown man attempted to rob the pair. He never asked them to show their hands, Wanderer recounted, because he got “cold feet” and started shooting. Wanderer had been carrying a gun of his own and returned fire, striking the would-be robber, whose own bullet allegedly hit Mrs. Wanderer and killed her.
“The first shot blew him across the hallway,” Wanderer, who claimed he had been discharged the previous year and earned a Croix de Guerre from France in World War I, said. “Then I couldn’t see him. But I knew where he’d landed and I let him have three more. I got him, but if I’d only got him sooner. Just a nickel’s worth sooner.”
The story seemed fishy to Chicago police. On July 7, Wanderer admitted he owned both guns — the one that killed his wife and another which killed the unidentified man, the Daily News found. His cousin told police he’d loaned the gun to Wanderer “some time ago as protection, as the latter had been held up recently.” Detectives also suspected that the unknown man knew Wanderer from the war and held a grudge against him.
The investigation continued. Two days later, Wanderer — this time re-enacting in front of police and the secretary to the state’s attorney — told detectives he’d shot both people. He said that he’d taken both of his guns out when the unknown man approached the two coming home from the movie and accidentally shot his wife.
A day later, a coroner’s jury recommended a grand jury indict Wanderer on two counts of murder. Wanderer, who “appeared cool as if he were a spectator of the proceedings,” told a Daily News reporter, “The thought of killing anybody probably doesn’t bother me as much as it would the average person. You see, I’ve put in a lot of time in my father’s butcher shop and the idea of shedding blood doesn’t offend me much. Besides that, there’s my army experience. That taught me not to mind killing.”
On July 12, police identified a possible motive: another woman. Wanderer had apparently sent love letters to 16-year-old Julia Schmidt. Detectives now believed Wanderer simply killed his wife to be rid of her, and the grand jury agreed. He was indicted that day. Several days later Wanderer’s former army commander disregarded his alleged heroics during the war. “He has never received any decoration of any kind,” the lieutenant said.
Wanderer’s trial for his wife’s murder began Oct. 1. It’s unclear why both indictments were tried together. On the first day of jury selection, the assistant state’s attorney – “who has more hanging verdicts to his credit than any other prosecutor,” the Daily News said – announced he would ask for the death penalty. As he listened in a “brown striped suit, a striped silk shirt with a soft collar and black tie,” Wanderer show no emotion.
The selection process ran unusually long. Too many potential jurors told the court they’d already formed an opinion about Wanderer. On Oct. 11, the mother of Wanderer’s wife came into the courtroom to express her distress at the slow pace of the trial thus far, the Daily News reported. Opening statements began two days later.
On Oct. 15, Schmidt told the jury “how Carl made love to her immediately before he killed his wife and immediately after her death,” the Daily News said.
The next week on Oct. 20, Wanderer took the stand himself. He “repudiated the confession he made to the police ‘that he had killed his wife and the unidentified stranger.’ While Wanderer did not deny he had signed the confession attributed to him, he declared it was not true, and had been made under police compulsion.”
His testimony did little to convince the jury. They found Wanderer guilty of murdering his wife, and a judge later sentenced him to 25 years on Nov. 2 — but not death. When he faced yet another jury for the murder of the “ragged stranger,” his luck ran out. It took the jury just 12 minutes to convict him on April 16, 1921. A judge then delivered a death sentence.
In the end, Wanderer confessed to the murder the night before his execution. He told a Daily News reporter as he played cards, sang and burst into fits of laughter and profanity:
“Well, I killed Ruth and the stranger fella. And I’ll tell you why,” but he asked that the confession not be printed until after his hanging to spare his “pa and sisters,” who believed him innocent. Wanderer had been telling them the papers had lied about his case, so they never believed what they read about him — and they probably wouldn’t believe the confession either.
The reporter then asked for the motive.
“Well, it was this way,” he said. “I killed Ruth first. I didn’t want her to see me kill the other. I know that it was a dirty rotten trick, but I don’t know why the hell I did it.”
He continued: “It’s a funny thing about me, you know. I never went with any girl in my life before Ruth. I hated girls. You can believe it or not but I was straight, perfectly straight, when I got married. And I couldn’t even stand Ruth. I couldn’t stand even being alone with her or having to touch her. See? That’s how straight I was.”
Wanderer trailed off for a bit, but the reporter brought him back.
“It went on that way for some time. And then when I realized she was going to be a mother, I felt terrible. You can’t imagine how I felt. I couldn’t stand it to figure out I was going to be a father. It seemed awful. And I couldn’t stand it to figure she was going to be the mother of my child. The whole idea was repugnant to me.”
He finally finished: “I didn’t want to leave her. She would suffer too much. I couldn’t stand it if she suffered. So I figured out the only way to kill her. And I got this poor boob to frame a holdup. And I killed them both.”
The story of Carl and Ruth Wanderer could have come straight from a murder ballad, such as “Knoxville Girl” or “Tom Dooley.” For more on murder ballads, check out “Unprepared to Die” by Paul Slade.